Glossary of Legal Terms

 

A

Acquittal – A criminal defendant is found not guilty due to; 1) the judge deciding the case evidence was insufficient to support a conviction or 2) the jury verdict concluded not guilty.

Active Judge – A judge that works for the courts full-time.

Admissible – A term used to describe evidence that may be presented to judge or jury in civil and criminal cases.

Affidavit – A statement made under oath, it may be written or printed.

Arraignment – The first court hearing in which a criminal defendant is told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

B

BAC – Acronym for Blood Alcohol Content or Blood Alcohol Concentration.  The measurement of alcohol intoxication in an individuals blood stream, usually expressed as a percentage.  For example a BAC of 0.10 means 0.10% or one tenth of one percent (0.10g of alcohol for every dL of blood).

Bail – The release of an individual accused of a crime, under specified conditions, designed to assure that individual will appear in court when ordered.  Also can refer to the money posted for the release of an accused individual.

Bench Trial – A trial adjudicated by a judge, not by a jury.

Brief – A legal document submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side’s legal findings, issues, and arguments.

BUI – Acronym for Boating Under the Influence.  The legal BAC limit in Washington State for boating is 0.08, the same BAC limit imposed on vehicle drivers.

C

Capital Offense – A crime punishable by death.

Case File – A complete collection of documents filed in court pertaining to a case.

Case Law – Law established by previous court decisions.

Caseload – The number of cases handled by an attorney, judge, or court.

Chambers – Judges office, court staff may also use this space.

Common Law – The legal system used in the United States, which relies on the articulation of legal principles in a historical succession of judicial decisions.  Common laws can be changed by legislation.

Community Service – A court ordered condition that requires an individual to work for a civic or nonprofit organization without any form of pay.

Concurrent Sentence – Prison sentence for two or more offenses to be completed at the same time rather than one sentence after another.  Example:  A two-year sentence and a three-year sentence served concurrently would result in only three years in prison, rather than a total of five years in prison.

Contract – A binding agreement between two or more individuals that provides terms and conditions of what can be done and/or what cannot be done.

Conviction – A judgement of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Counsel – Another term for attorney, also can be legal advice.

Court – Government building used to resolve legal disputes.  Also judges may refer to themselves as “court.”  Example:  “The court has made a decision.”

Court Clerk – An officer of the court responsible for managing the flow of cases through the day and overseeing administrative tasks.

Court Reporter – An individual responsible for recording word-for-word proceedings of what is said in court by using a stenograph machine, shorthand, or audio recording, and then reproduces a transcript of the proceedings.

Count – An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.

D

Declaratory Judgment – A judge’s statement about an individual’s rights.

De Facto – Latin for “in fact” or “actually.”  Something that exists in fact but not as  a matter of law.

De Jure – Latin for “in law.”  Something that exists by operation of law.

De Novo – Latin for “anew.”  For example:  A trial de novo is a completely new trial.

Defendant – The individual accused of a crime.

Deposition – Oral statements made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths; often used while interviewing potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, and later used during trial.

Discovery – The collection of evidence before a trial.

Docket – A legal form containing the complete history of each case, in chronological log format, summarizing the court proceedings.

Due Process – The constitutional right that every defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial.

DUI – Acronym for Driving Under the Influence, also known as drunk driving.  An individual may be considered DUI if their driving is effected by prescription drugs, marijuana, illegal drugs and/or alcohol.  The legal BAC limit for Washington State is 0.08.

E

Evidence – Information presented in the form of document, objects, and or testimony, that are used to verify or discredit the circumstances of the case.  Often used to persuade the judge or jury to rule in favor of one side or the other.

Exclusionary Rule – A doctrine that declares evidence obtained in violation of a criminal defendant’s constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible during trial.

Exculpatory Evidence – Information explaining the innocence of the defendant, they did not commit the accused crime.

Expungement – The legal process of clearing a past criminal conviction and removing it from general view.  Only certain criminal charges are eligible for the expungement process and specific requirements must be met before a judge will grant an expungement.  Once an expungement is granted, for the most part it looks like it never happened and the past conviction would not need to be divulged on documents such as a job application or renter’s application.  Expungement can also be called record sealing or sealing a criminal record.

F

Federal Public Defender – A criminal defense attorney, employed full-time by the federal courts to provide legal representation to defendants who are indigent and unable to afford a private criminal defense lawyer.

Felony – A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

File – To place a document in the official custody of the court clerk to enter into the records of a case.

G

Grand Jury – A group of 16-23 U.S. citizens who attend a trial to listen to case evidence presented by the prosecutor and defense attorney, in order to decide if there is probable cause to believe the defendant on trial committed a crime or not.  The grand jury will make a ruling of guilty or not guilty.

H

Habeas Corpus – Latin for “you have the body.”  A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner’s continued confinement.

Hearsay – Evidence presented by a witness who did not hear or see the incident in question, but learned of it from somewhere or someone else.  Hearsay is generally not allowed as evidence in a trial.

Home Confinement – A court ordered punishment that requires an individual to remain at home at all times, with the exception of court approved activities such as going to work or going to medical appointments.  To monitor the individual’s location, that individual may be required to wear an electronic monitoring device, such as a wrist or ankle bracelet.

I

Impeachment – The act of accusing misconduct or the act of calling a witnesses testimony false or in doubt.  An attorney may prove a witness falsified their testimony and therefore the witness would be said to be “impeached.”

In camera – Latin for ” in a judges chambers.” Meaning without the presences of the jury and/or public.

Inculpatory Evidence – Evidence that shows the criminal defendant did not commit the accused crime.

Indictment – A formal charge stating there is enough evidence demonstrating the defendant committed the crime and justifies going to trial.

Indigent – An individual who financially cannot afford a private attorney and meets the qualifications for a public defender.

Interrogatories – A form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing under oath.

Issue – To be sent out officially.  For example: a court will “issue” a court order.

J

Judge – An official in the judicial branch who presides over court proceedings, hearing all the witnesses and examining all the evidence presented by the parties of the case, and then has the authority to issue rulings based on his or her interpretation of the law.

Judgeship – The position of judge.  Congress decides the number of judgeships for each district and appellate court.

Jurisdiction – The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case.  It can also mean the geographic region that a court has legal authority over.

Jurisprudence – The study and theory of law.

Jury – A sworn body of people selected by the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney to hear the evidence of a trial and then required to render a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Jury Instructions – A set of legal rules given to jury before the beginning of a case.

K

L

Lawsuit – a civil action brought forth in a court of law requiring legal remedy, in which the plaintiff has incurred a loss or suffered some harm as a result of the defendant’s actions.

Litigation – A case or lawsuit.  Plaintiffs and defendants are called litigants and the attorneys defending them are called litigators.  Criminal cases may also be referred to as litigation.

M

Magistrate Judge – A judicial officer appointed to assist the district court judge in such duties as overseeing the first appearance of criminal defendant, setting bail, deciding criminal misdemeanor cases, and other administrative duties.

Mental Health Treatment – A special condition in which a court may order an individual to undergo an evaluation and treatment for a mental disorder.  Treatment may include mental health therapy by a psychologist or psychiatric doctor, counseling, and medication.

Misdemeanor – A criminal offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.

Mistrial – A trial in which an error has occurred, making the trial invalid.  The trial must be started over with the selection of a new jury panel.

Motion – A request presented to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

N

Nolo Contendere – No Contest.  A criminal sentencing plea that has the same effect as a plea of guilty.

O

Oral Argument – The opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court.

P

Panel – Can refer to 1) a group of judges assigned to decide a case, usually 3 judges make up a panel, 2) the group of potential jurors during the jury selection, 3) the list of available attorneys to serve as court appointed council for indigent criminal defendants.

Parole – The condition of supervision by a U.S. probation officer after an inmate has been released from prison.

Peremptory Challenge – A granted right by the district court allowing the attorneys to dismiss a certain number of prospective jurors during the jury selection process without being required to stated the reason for the dismissal.

Petit Jury – A group of U.S. citizens chosen by attorneys to hear the evidence and circumstances of a case during a trial.  After hearing the facts in dispute from both sides, the citizens will determine a verdict of guilty, or not guilty.  Twelve individuals make up a federal criminal jury.  Petit Jury is also known as trial jury.

Petty Offense – A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.

Plea – A defendant’s formal statement of “guilty” or “not guilty” to the criminal charge.

Pleadings – Written statements filed with the court that descry a party’s legal or factual assertions about the case.

Precedent – A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally “follow precedent” – meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.

Presentence Report – A report summarizing background information needed for sentencing an individual after they have been found guilty of a crime.

Pretrial Conference –  A meeting where the judge, defense attorney, and prosecutor discuss a case prior to the actual trial.  Typically they will review the proposed witnesses and evidence relevant to the case, discuss other matters that will be presented to the jury, and set a trial schedule.  The defense attorney and prosecutor may have a final negotiation in effort to settle the case without going to trial.

Probation – Instead of being sent or held in prison, an individual may be released into the community where they would have to abide by certain conditions for a specific period of time.  While on probation that individual will be monitored by a U.S. probation officer.

Probation Officer – An officer of the court that monitors and supervises criminal defendants, prepares reports on convicted defendants, and may conduct presentence investigations.

Pro Se – To represent one’s self.  An individual serving as their own lawyer.

Prosecute – To charge someone with a crime.  A prosecutor tires a criminal case on behalf of the city, county, state, or nation.

Pro Tem – Temporary.  A Pro Tem Judge is a judge that is temporary filling in for the permanent judge.

Q

R

Record – A written account of all case happenings while in a court of law; including pleadings, evidence, and exhibits.

Remand – Send back.

Reverse – The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court.

S

Sanction – A penalty or other type of enforcement used to provide incentives for obeying laws, rules, and regulations.  Examples of criminal sanctions include; serious punishments, jail time, and steep fines.

Sentence – The punishment assigned by a court to a defendant found guilty of a crime.

Sentencing Guidelines – A set of rules and principles established by the United States Sentencing Commission that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a defendant found guilty of a crime.

Sequester – To separate.  Jury members may be sequestered from outside influences during trial.

Standard of Proof – Degree of proof required.  A prosecutor must prove a defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Statue of Limitations – The time in which a criminal case must be filed with the prosecution.  Time frames and deadlines vary depending on the crime charged.

Subpoena – A court ordered document that names a fixed person to appear in a court of law and provide testimony.

Substance Abuse Treatment – A special condition in which a court may order an individual to undergo an evaluation and treatment for abuse of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and / or alcohol.   Treatment may include, counseling, detoxification, and medication.

Supervised release – A court imposed punishment that begins after an individual completes their prison sentence.  During supervised release an individual is monitored by a U.S. probation officer.  Supervised release differs from parole by being in addition to a prison sentence and not replacing a portion of the prison sentence as does parole.

T

Testimony – Oral evidence presented by witnesses, plaintiffs, and/or defendants during trials or before grand juries.

Transcript – An accurate written record of what was exactly said during a formal proceeding such as a trial, hearing, and/or oral deposition.

U

U.S. Attorney – A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend federal cases.  The U.S. Attorney has an Assistant U.S. Attorney who appears as the government’s attorney in individual cases.

Uphold – The appellate court agrees with the lower court decision to allows it to stand.

V

Venue – The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction.  A change of venue is when a case is transferred from one judicial district to a different judicial district.

Verdict – The decision of a judge or jury that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant.  The verdict is presented in the form of “guilty” or “not guilty”.

Voir Dire – The questioning of jurors during the jury selection process.

W

Warrant – Court authorization for law enforcement officers to make an arrest or conduct a search.

Witness – An individual that provides testimony before the court or jury.

Writ – A written court order directing an individual to take a certain act or not to take a certain act.

X

Y

Z